June 8, 2012

Into the Cloud: Catholic Charities Society (Edmonton, Alberta)

  • 1,400 Staff
  • $70 million budget

With 1,400 staff spread over a large geographic area in Alberta, Canada, this large social service organization maintains four distinct business units: disability services, childrens services, immigration services, and community and family services. The programs include maintaining residential homes and performing outreach, helping immigrants to the country with refugee status, family counseling, employee assistance programs, and more, and are supported by staff in nine different offices of varying sizes.

Each office has a Local Area Network, and theyre all connected to a Wide Area Network. The IT staff is centrally located in one office, and provides IT support to all the other offices and all residential homes run by the organization.

Graham Reid, the IT Manager, said the culture falls somewhere between risk-taking and conservative, though the mindset has shifted over the past decade as the organization continues to evolve from a single-person leadership modelit was originally founded by an Edmonton priestto a board-led one.

Were sort of in between, conservative by nature but moving to the forefront a little, Graham said.

Were sort of in between, conservative by nature but moving to the forefront a little, Graham said.

IT has recently started talking about moving email functions from the in-house Exchange server to Gmail. The nearby University of Alberta recently did just that for its 70,000 students, and the City of Edmonton plans to become the first major Canadian city to do the same.

Thats helped convince our board its something we can look at, Graham said.

Much of the reluctance stems from concerns about security. The organization deals with sensitive information about clients, including psychiatric assessments and other records, and is subject to Canadian and provincial laws about what it can and cant release.

People know the data is stored somewhere, and counselors, social workers, people like that, theyre more concerned where the data is, he said. When it comes to storing stuff elsewheretheres a screening process, if the data is stored somewhere else, people want to know that its safe. If we store it with Amazon, I can say its going to be safe and secure, but its not like people can come and actually touch the server.

A few years ago, the organization switched from a PBX-based phone system to VOIP across all nine offices. The VOIP system is not Cloud-basedrather, its hosted on Catholic Charities server, and can be administered from anywhere theres an internet connectionbut given the chance to choose a new system, Reid said, the organization might go with a Cloud solution.

If we were to do it now, it would be a different decision, Graham said. We chose the system that offered the most robust toolset at the time. Like a lot of organizations, we had an aging phone system. Every time we added a person, we had to worry about how many more ports were available on the physical card that fit into the box. It became a juggling match.

The VOIP system cost money up front, but offered a number of benefits in the long-term that eventually won over the board.

Theres a capital cost, but then there are other costs we can eliminate, and other benefits, Graham said. We presented the business case, and it took several meetings with the board to get them to realize that though it would cost us money now, it would save us money going forward.

As a result, the board is now more open to decisions that might prove beneficial from financial and business efficiency perspectives, which may open the door to more Cloud solutions.

In the end, if it will make us work better, theyre more open to investigating whether its viable for us, Graham said. From a funding perspective, its easier to talk to a funder and say I need $2,000 for a server than to say I need $2,000 a year for ongoing Cloud-based service. If youre a bigger organization, the idea of going to the cloud is harder , because we already have so much physical infrastructure in place. But for smaller orgs, you dont have as much of an investment and its almost easier.”

Editor’s note: This case study is part of an NTEN research series on Nonprofit Infrastructure in the Cloud, which was conducted in May, 2012, and prepared by Idealware. You canread the overview article for this study, and find the other case studies in this seriesin our case-study section.

Chris Bernard